Tokyo: Prime minister Shinzo Abe’s gamble on an early election may have just won him a chance to lead Japan through 2021.
Abe, 63, saw his ruling coalition retain its two-thirds majority in the 465-member lower house in an election on Sunday. That boosts his chances at winning another term next year as head of his Liberal Democratic Party, which could make him Japan’s longest serving leader.
The landslide win—helped along by a disparate and weak opposition—paves the way for more ultra-easy monetary policy that has boosted stocks to the highest level in two decades and helped Asia’s second-biggest economy expand for six straight quarters. Yet pressure is also growing for Abe to tackle Japan’s swollen debt, increase stagnant wages and overhaul the labour market to replenish a rapidly aging workforce.
The yen fell 0.4% to 113.93 per dollar as of 8:30 am in Tokyo, the lowest level in more than three months, and Japanese equities are poised to climb.
With typhoon rains drenching Tokyo on Sunday night, Abe deflected questions about his future and called for humility—signalling a lesson learned after scandals hurt his personal approval ratings this year. Still, he said the victory showed “the people want us to move forward based on a stable political foundation and achieve results."
Unofficial tallies showed the LDP winning 283 seats and its coalition partner Komeito taking 29 as of 8:30 am Monday in Tokyo—roughly similar to the split after the 2014 election. Five parties and independents took the rest. Four seats had yet to be called.
The two-thirds majority gives Abe the numbers to revise the pacifist constitution in place since World War II, a move he sees as necessary to clarify the legal status of Japan’s Self Defence Forces. Abe has called for more pressure on North Korea and strengthened the US alliance by cozying up to President Donald Trump, who is scheduled to visit Japan next month on a trip through Asia.
“With a win on this scale, probably changing the constitution will become the main theme," said Hiro Kishi, a former trade ministry official who is a professor at Keio University. “The chances have grown that reforms will not progress."
Analysts aren’t expecting anything to happen quickly though, particularly after Abe backed down on a plan to change the constitution by 2020. Any change would also need to pass a public referendum, and recent polls show the public divided over the issue.
“The kind of aggressive time line is probably not going to happen," Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Washington, said of potential changes to the constitution. “We still don’t know what kind of amendment they could get everyone to agree on."
The Constitutional Democratic Party, set up only about two weeks ago by former chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano after its predecessor split up, had 54 seats. Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike’s upstart Party of Hope, which briefly jumped in opinion polls last month, won 49 seats.
Koike was in Paris on Sunday to attend a climate change conference. In a televised interview, she called it a “tough result" and apologized for causing “unpleasant feelings through my words and actions."
Akira Ishibashi, a 41-year-old salaryman who brought his two young boys to a polling station near Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market, said he voted for Abe’s LDP because the alternatives didn’t seem appealing.
“For me, it was a process of elimination—and the LDP was the only choice left," he said. “I just don’t trust the other parties. They make nice-sounding promises that I don’t think they can deliver on. “
In power since 2012, Abe touted his economic record on the campaign trail. Unemployment is at less than 3% and a weakened currency has bolstered exports. The benchmark Topix index is at a 10-year peak, while the Nikkei 225 Stock Average has climbed to the highest since 1996.
One major decision for Abe over the next few months will be whether to retain Haruhiko Kuroda as Bank of Japan governor when his term expires in April. Some LDP members have expressed concern about the central bank’s unprecedented easing, which included surprise moves to introduce negative interest rates and an innovative yield-curve control program.
“The economy is growing, the yen is weak, and so Abe wants to keep the status quo on the economy without any disruptions," Takuji Okubo, Tokyo-based chief economist at Japan Macro Advisors, said by phone. “He doesn’t want to use political capital on labour market reforms or corporate tax cuts."
The number of parliamentary seats was cut to 465 from 475 in this election as part of a reform aimed at reducing the excessive weight given to rural votes. The ruling coalition received roughly the same share of seats it had before.
The LDP is set to vote in September on a new leader, who would effectively became prime minister. Fumio Kishida, who heads one of the LDP’s biggest factions, declined to comment on the party’s leadership contest when asked on Sunday.
Toshihiro Nikai, the LDP’s secretary-general, told NHK he would support Abe for a third straight term. In interviews with Japanese television stations on Sunday, Abe said that nothing had been decided on the party race, adding that his focus was changing the constitution, bringing down the debt and investing in education.
Abe also said that he’d again answer cronyism allegations if necessary. Still, the opposition is unlikely to hurt Abe without new information, according to Yu Uchiyama, professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.
“The election will basically clear away those scandals," Uchiyama said. “So the chances of Abe staying on will be extremely high." Bloomberg